Familiarity with Huysmans in the English-speaking world is usually limited to but one book, À rebours. A quick look through the catalogues of publishers of classics in translation reveals numerous editions of this one text, whilst the rest of Huysmans’ oeuvre is the purview of Dedalus. One might go even further in saying that Huysmans is often mainly known through his association with Oscar Wilde; À rebours is usually assumed to be the ‘poisonous French book’ Dorian Gray is so attached to, and during Wilde’s trials, the prosecutor Edward Carson referred to À rebours in his cross-examination as a corrupting ‘sodomitical’ book.
But the quality and variety of Huysmans books entitle him to much more than being remembered in passing, or being remembered for one book. À Rebours marked a very significant shift in his writing away from the more naturalist inclinations of his earlier novels. In these earlier novels we read an author capable of creating arresting novels rooted in observation and experience. There is the novel Marthe about a young woman who succumbs to prostitution, the novel Les Sœurs Vatard about working class sisters who work at a book-bindery, a collection of short prose pieces, Parisian Sketches, and the short novel À vau-l’eau, about a lowly clerk’s quest to get a half decent meal in Paris.
Marthe was Huysmans very first novel. It depicts sympathetically but without naiveté the life of a poor pretty young woman and her fruitless attempts to escape the ‘venial mire’. Her father, a poor artist, dies when she is a child, her mother, a worker in artificial pearls, dies when she is fifteen. Marthe, working in artificial pearls like her mother, is left exhausted or ill by this meagre paying repetitive job. The sole family link she has is her mother’s brother, whose simple pauper’s pleasures exasperate her longing for something better, something more prosperous and exciting.
Huysmans offers a none too flattering portrait of the women who make up Marthe’s environment: ‘A girl is lost once she starts mixing with other girls; the conversation of schoolboys is as nothing compared to that of working girls; a workshop is a touchstone for virtue, you rarely come across gold there, but brass abounds. A young girl doesn’t ‘fall’, as the novelists put it, from love or being carried away by her senses, but mostly from vanity – and a little bit of curiosity’. Listening to the stories told by her workmates of their dalliances with men, she longs for something of their fun and excitement.
Soon Marthe takes up with a rich older man. She regrets her liaison with ‘the old letch who bought her’ and takes up instead with a younger man who she finds too soppy and weak. Another lover abandons her while she is ill, her misfortune is further compounded by the doctor telling her she can no longer continue with her pearl-blowing job. This misery, made more oppressive by the memory of the good fortune she had tasted with her first lover, drives her to seek new ways to support herself and eventually into the trade that she never manages to escape.
The lowest point in her life though is the short period of time she spends in a brothel. Broken down further and further by poverty, sleeping in abandoned squalid dives, losing a lover and a baby, the brothel awaits like the abyss. Later on when she has the good fortune to be taken on at a music hall and the director of her theatre company has her name removed from the books of the Prefecture of Police, her time at the brothel haunts her like one of the fates, as though her escape can only be temporary.
Perhaps the strongest impression the novel gives is the complete lack of opportunity even for a spirited poor woman like Marthe to have any life besides one of grinding ‘honourable’ poverty, or to take the plunge and commit to being the sort of woman who must play men for her advantage. The former life brings with it the sort of mental dullness and dehumanisation that working like a machine must naturally produce, whereas the latter life ensures that Marthe is forever branded as ‘that sort of woman’, the sort you cannot and should not love. One comes away feeling that only sheer selfish will and good luck can ensure one rises out of such poverty, and Marthe’s likeable and praiseworthy traits will only make her a more tragic victim.